Alabama farmers rolled out the red carpet for agricultural leaders from around the country in mid-September at a historic session spotlighting the state as never before on the national scene.
Those who attended the six-day meeting represented nearly every phase of agriculture, forestry and other entities related to agribusiness which is Alabama’s largest industry.
"It’s an honor for Alabama to be able to host such an important conference," Commissioner of Agriculture Ron Sparks said as he walked down a long hallway at Montgomery’s Renaissance Montgomery Hotel where the event was headquartered. "The issues we are talking about affect everyone in our state and in states across the country."
Having the annual National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) meet in Montgomery was believed to be a first. The state has welcomed regional meetings of agricultural officials in past years, but the September session represented something special.
"Our agenda involves issues of great importance to farming, especially those which involve food safety and supply," said Sparks, as he prepared to attend the next meeting at the hotel. "We’re especially honored to have an undersecretary of agriculture to speak at our meeting."
In his printed welcome to the large group of farm officials, Sparks — who is president of the national organization — said the meeting "provides us the opportunity to showcase Alabama and share with you some of our agribusiness activities."
The agenda touched on a variety of subjects including energy, biotechnology, special crops, food security and federal programs affecting farmers from coast to coast.
Sparks and his staff drew praise from those who attended, including state Sen. Wendell Mitchell who commended the commissioner during a large gathering of officials on Friday.
"We are privileged to have an outstanding Commissioner of Agriculture," Mitchell said. "We have never had someone in that position who puts his heart, soul and mind to work on behalf of the people of Alabama through that office more than Ron Sparks."
Praise for Sparks didn’t stop at the state level. He also was lauded by former Mexican President Vicente Fox, who was a special guest at the meeting and delivered the keynote address at the luncheon on Friday.
"Ron, you are a man of action and make things happen in the right way," said Fox, whose comment drew applause from the audience.
In addition to appearing at the annual meetings of state agriculture officials, Fox also announced a partnership between the University of West Alabama and the Universidad de Leon in Mexico. The agreement will involve everything from cultural exchanges to dual degree programs.
Sparks’ friendship with Fox, which has been growing in recent months, led to the accord. The commissioner spent several days in Mexico during the summer as part of a mission to gauge Alabama’s agricultural possibilities in America’s neighbor to the south.
Fox, who has been concerned for years about the departure of young Mexican men and women to the U.S. in search of jobs, believes education is the key to Mexico’s future.
"Only through education can you change a nation in one generation," said Fox, as reported by the Associated Press. During the announcement, Sparks said, "It is essential to the future of our students and our state that Alabama have and maintain a presence on the international level. These collaborations ensure we maintain an essential competitive edge."
Commissioners and directors of state agriculture departments across the country voiced their concerns about problems facing food producers and one said the American public apparently is unaware of them.
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Charles Bronson said he believes farmers and foresters are being taken for granted, particularly when it comes to cost factors.
"The cost of fertilizer has tripled in recent years," Bronson said during one session. "Much of what we buy is petroleum-based and the return on our investment has barely gone up. We can’t keep operating this way."
Also discussed at the annual meeting was the "25-25" program which is aimed at increasing U.S. farm and forestry production and decreasing American reliance on foreign oil by 2025.
Former New York Commissioner of Agriculture Nathan Rudgers said the U.S. is making some headway, but stands at about 11 percent today and has some catching up to do in order to add the other 14 percent in the next 16 years.
He said electricity, wind, trees and other energy sources should help, but also noted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is likely to have something to say about that in the years to come.
"There is in this country a real concern over EPA regulations," Rudgers said. "What is needed is thoughtful consideration to the fact that agriculture is part of the solution, not part of the problem."
Bronson asked several questions during Rudgers’ appearance and focused on the controversial "Cap and Trade" program involving greenhouse gas emissions. He said as it expands "we may have to go through new hoops with the EPA."
His concern about rising costs for farmers and foresters was mirrored throughout the large meeting room and his comments brought knowing nods from officials representing 45 states.
"Farmers are borrowing money at such a level that one bad year could wipe them out," said Bronson, who noted his ancestors began farming in Florida shortly after settlers arrived in Jamestown. "That means the food they produce will be gone unless somebody picks up their farm."
Fox proved to be the star of the show. He and his wife, Marta, were escorted from stop-to-stop and the former Mexican president seemed to take on an aura of a rock star. At 6-feet-5 inches, he towered over most of the attendees at the hotel and his big smile proved infectious as he posed for pictures and signed autographs.
He also got a kick out of a video exhibit by Monsanto, which works closely with farming and forestry interests about the country.
With Sparks just behind his seat, Fox had his hands on the steering wheel and tried his best to keep his "vehicle" on the road as he traveled around the video course. His big grin let everyone around him know he was thoroughly enjoying himself.
NASDA’s mission is to represent state departments of agriculture and promote U.S. agricultural interests while protecting consumers and the environment. The organization is governed by a 10-member board of directors who represent farmers and foresters in the North, South, Midwest and West regions.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.